Released in 1972, Super Fly is the story of a Harlem drug-dealer/pimp ironically named Priest (Ron O’Neal) who’s had enough of the drug game, and wishes to get out before "the game" kills him.
Orchestrating one last big score before retirement, our anti-hero learns that leaving his lifestyle could be a deadly transition as his new and old partners don’t wish for him to leave the business alive.
I know, the story seems a little simple, but it’s everything else that goes on that makes it so great. Check out this clip to get a sense of what I’m talking about:
Now tell me that’s not cool. Priest riding through Harlem in his Cadillac Eldorado (did anyone see the peace symbols in the headlights?), and then strolling through a lounge as if he owns it. He even asked someone if they’d “squared up” on him, because he hadn’t seen them in a while. Obviously, Priest meant that anywhere outside of his realm was not the place to be. Curtis Mayfield’s song “Pusher Man,” which plays during the scene, is equally as cool.
Ultimately, Priest’s coolness, and those who attempt to challenge it, is what the movie's about. Those trying to take Priest's mojo include junkies who try to jack him for his money/drugs, militant “brothers” demanding that Priest share his wealth with the Black movement, and, every blaxploitation hero’s nemesis, “The Man.”
What intrigued me so much outside of the cool factor of Super Fly was its depiction of Harlem in 1972. The excessive drug use, outlandish attire, and cultural vernacular were all geared toward audiences living in the same setting. Many inner city African Americans were tired of seeing the clean cut Sidney Poitier in duck-out-of-water stories where he was always the only black person.
Urban cultures wanted heroes who lived in and dealt with situations like their own, which for some, unfortunately, involved drugs, poor quality of living, and crime. Parks Jr. clearly displays the idea of the amoral American dream by strategically placing the American flag in key scenes. One scene includes dealers who cut cocaine on a plate with an American flag printed on it. This sign of rebellion reminded me of Peter Fonda's chopper in Easy Rider, which also had an American flag printed on it.
Technically, Super Fly was marginal at best; however, I would’ve given it an Oscar for best direction after watching Blacula. Director Gordon Parks Jr. was more creative in his shot selection, incorporating more point of view shots from Priest’s perspective, which enabled audiences to put themselves right in his shoes. Also, it is a director’s job to create the mise en scene, or visual style (costumes, props, lighting, etc.) of any film, and Parks Jr. certainly excelled at filming Harlem in 1972.
Like most blaxploitation movies, there are some visible shot goofs. Some of the more noticeable mistakes included a cord flashing in front of the camera in the film’s opening chase sequence, as well as a clear silhouette of a camera in other scenes. Still, these goofs did little to distract me from the film’s overall coolness.
Ron O’Neal went on to direct the sequel Super Fly T.N.T, which was panned by most critics. After blaxploitation cinema began to cool down, O’Neal struggled to find work in television and film. Some of his later work included a supporting role on A Different World in the late 1980s and early 90s, and a return to the blaxploitation genre in 1996’s Original Gangstas, which also starred fellow blaxploitation alumni Pam Grier and Jim Brown.
With the return to blaxploitation cinema with Michael Jai White’s Black Dynamite, perhaps many of the old school stars will resurrect their careers while also helping new talent. Blaxploitation films may have been cheaply made, but they employed many people who wouldn't have found work otherwise. In these times, perhaps a resurrection of blaxploitation cinema is just what the economy needs.